Say what you will about Little Rocket Man. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is the chief thief of a family-run kleptocracy.
With the announcement of a summit between North and South Korean leaders as a possible prelude to talks with the Trump administration, Kim has manoeuvred within view of a victory his forefathers only dreamed of: membership in the world community, on North Korea’s terms.
Step one is his rapidly advancing rapprochement with South Korea. The collapse last year of the conservative government in Seoul produced a new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, who favours better relations with North Korea.
That led, in turn, to a rare visit by emissaries of the South Korean president to Pyongyang. They returned to Seoul on Tuesday with plans for the late-April meeting – and what appears to be Kim’s next gambit.
The Kim regime also dangled the idea of giving up its nukes entirely if North Korea’s safety and sovereignty are guaranteed.
Kim appears to understand that the US can hardly expose South Korea to a potentially apocalyptic war without support from Moon. To do so would court disaster diplomatically, economically and militarily.
First, North Korea’s nukes are an accomplished reality, no longer a possibility to be averted. As appalling as it is to acknowledge this, Kim’s negotiating position is much stronger now. He can aim for a lasting settlement rather than temporary breathing room.
His family has always believed modernisation threatens their grip on power, so they sealed it out, making theirs a hermit kingdom. But Xi Jinping, the Chinese premier, is attempting to prove that economic liberalisation can co-exist with political dictatorship. Kim may conclude that he can maintain power without utterly isolating his country.
Third, Kim has on the horizon a prospect for greater security than ever before.
America’s fracking revolution has put tremendous pressure on Russia’s state-owned Gazprom to find new customers for piped gas, which is cheaper than US gas that must be liquefied for oceanic shipping.
South Korea is an especially tantalising market.
But if talks with the United States clear away the most severe restrictions, Putin’s pipeline project will surely be resurrected.
And if completed, the pipeline will constitute a major strategic Russian asset running right through the middle of North Korea – enough insurance against a US attack that Kim could afford to mothball his own nukes to shelter under the Russian umbrella.
Further provocation gains Kim nothing. But his past outrages have now put him in a position where he is potentially able to turn the page.
On the other hand, the prospect of a normalised North Korea underlines the longer-term challenge for the United States. Would de-escalation erode the rationale for American bases in the South?
© Washington Post Service